Tag Archives: Paul McAuley

Cowboy Angels, Paul McAuley

Pyr, 2011 reprint of 2007 original, 363 pages, C$20.00 pb, ISBN 978-1-61614-251-3

Like most enthusiastic readers, my overall tastes may not change much, but there are definite ebbs and flows at the edges.  Freakishly attentive readers of these online reviews have probably noticed how much non-fiction I’ve been reviewing over the past two years, and that does reflect a broad tendency in my reading habits. As I may have explained elsewhere, SF is a bipolar genre currently undergoing a depressive phase, filled with cookie-cutter copies of the same impending apocalypse, or the same retro-idealized alternate realities.  Unsurprisingly, I’m having a harder time even identifying five good SF novels per year.

Still, I’m always willing to acknowledge that I haven’t read everything, and here Pyr runs to the rescue by reprinting Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels, four years after its original British release.  Since I hadn’t been able to secure a final copy of the novel in the years since its publication (A trip to the UK netted me an autographed edition I latter discovered to be an Advance Reader’s Copy, and I tend to avoid reading those as a matter of principle), I was really looking forward to this one.  McAuley may be an uneven writer, but when he’s good he’s really good.  Fortunately, this is one of his good books.  From the very first few pages, I was hooked: Writing in a style best described as a muscular revival of cold-war espionage thrillers, McAuley grabs on to a good idea and uses it to explore a fascinating theme.

In the world of Cowboy Angels, a sliver of the multiverse in which Alan Turing moved to the USA has managed to discover the secret of travel between parallel dimensions.  Letting no good imperialistic opportunity go to waste, this has led to an aggressive program of American power projection.  Bringing democracy, technology and favourable trade deals to other version of itself, the “Real” United States has spent most of its time between 1963 and 1980 using a mixture of special personnel and military forces to impose its idea of freedom over other worlds.  As the novel begins, however, the appetite for such adventures has run out: Jimmy Carter has been elected on a platform of gradual retreat, and the veterans of The Company are looking at semi-voluntary retirement.

But not all Company personnel are willing to go gently into the night, and when protagonist Stone is asked to come out of peaceful retirement to apprehend an ex-colleague gone rogue, he eventually learns of an ambitious plot to move the “Real” United States back to empire-building.  It gets quite a bit wilder after that, with big ideas thrown around in-between obvious parallels between the Real and the faltering imperial ambitions of modern-day America.  No wonder the novel took a while before being published in the US…

If nothing else, Cowboy Angels reached me at the exact right time, as I was thirsting for a novel of that calibre.  It’s a well-handled SF thriller, with big ideas, plenty of real-world thematic resonance, tough-guy characters and a few vertiginous twists that put the sense of wonder back in science-fiction.  For all of its world-weary tough-guy cynicism adapted from Cold War thrillers, Cowboy Angels is also packed with intriguing riffs on SF concepts, blending them into a series of revelations and ironies fit to activate the cognitive rush characteristic of the best Science Fiction.  The ending is a bit too abrupt to deliver full satisfaction to the bruised characters, yet perfectly-timed from a thematic point of view.

The rapid pacing, tough characters and high stakes won’t fail to please readers looking for old-fashioned Science-Fiction adventures.  McAuley, whose fiction is usually dour, has a bit of fun in this novel (the version of reality closest to ours is called the “Nixon Sheaf” and it doesn’t look quite as bad as some of the alternatives) and the result is refreshing.  While I don’t expect most readers to be as receptive to this novel as I was while reading it, Cowboy Angels now easily finds a place on my list of the top-five SF novels of 2008.

[Coda: I seldom blend creative discussions with my reviews, because my own novels are both unpublished and unpublishable, but I happened, in 2008, to write a novel that tackled many of the issues raised by Cowboy Angels using more or less the same starting premise.  As a result, I thought about that parallel universe/imperialism combo a great deal more than the average audience for this novel.  Reading Cowboy Angels, I was amused to see that we’d used some of the same devices and rationalizations to limit the scope of our multiverse.  I was even more pleased to note that we both went in different directions from the same premise, and that as a result I didn’t spend most of my time thinking “Aaargh, he’s doing it better than I did.”  It made the latter-book twists even more fun given that they sprang from more or less the same place.  Trust me; there’s no higher praise that praise coming from someone who worked on something similar.]

The Secret of Life, Paul McAuley

Tor, 2001, 413 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-765-30080-X

Paul McAuley’s previous novels had all left me mostly indifferent. I’d sit there at the word processor after reading them, trying in vain to find something interesting to say about them. It never happened—hence the absence of McAauley reviews elsewhere on this site. I could recognize a certain level of quality in his work, but it never translated in a strong positive or negative reaction. Pasquale’s Angels had an interesting uchronic premise but an overly florid execution. Fairyland had a good grasp of biological hard-SF, but a plot that floundered in nothingness. I couldn’t muster any interest in checking out his other novels.

The Secret of Life is the kind of breakout book that makes me want to re-evaluate an author’s entire output. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, McAuley had to return to Mars in order to produce an accessible top-notch SF novel. (Like Robinson’s Icehenge, McAuley had set one previous story there, Red Dust)

As with many recent SF novels, The Secret of Life presents a future where corporations trump government regulations and are well on their way to become the dominant political power. In the opening pages, an espionage operation goes wrong and dangerous alien micro-organisms are spilled in the Pacific Ocean. Months later, the micro-organisms have grown into a dangerous slick that is posing a significant ecological danger. Though she doesn’t know it yet, our heroine Mariella Anders is going to be drafted in an expedition of essential importance.

Not that you’d want to entrust anything of importance to her; Mariella is a brainy but rebellious scientist, given to body piercing, casual sex and generally bad attitude. Her résumé is impressive but her asocial tendencies are worrisome. Still, some people think that she’s the best candidate for an emergency mission to Mars in order to spy on a recent Chinese discovery. Corralled in restrictive non-disclosure agreements, forced to work with her scientific nemesis, Mariella goes to Mars halfway screaming and kicking. Contrived? Well, yes, but not as much as what pleasantly follows. Her subsequent adventures will make her an interplanetary fugitive, hunted down by federal and corporate forces as she’s trying to piece together a fundamental scientific mystery.

Clocking in at more than 400 pages of finely-detailed hard-SF extrapolation, The Secret of Life is amply worth its paperback cover price for readers thirsting for authentic science-fiction. McAuley was a professional research biologist and his latest novel is packed with the kind of insider detail that contributes so much to convincing SF. As biology becomes the primary science of the twenty-first century, it’s about time that SF moves beyond physics as its intellectual field of choice.

What makes The Secret of Life so much fun is, in the end, how clearly it’s written. Despite the heavy dose of hard-science, it reads with the narrative power of a thriller. Granted, it’s a touch too leisurely to be entirely compelling (whole sections of the novel could have been condensed without too much impact), but it’s much more effective than McAuley’s previous novels. (Amusingly enough, there’s even a reference to Fairlyand‘s main character, though it’s unclear whether The Secret of Life is taking place in the same universe as the previous novel.)

An unexpected element of The Secret of Life is the political message against corporate science and for open research. As real-world research becomes more expensive and hence increasingly affected by monetary concerns, it’s about time that open science becomes a major thematic component of SF. The Secret of Life isn’t the first book to do so, but it’s one of the first to make it an integral part of the narrative. McAuley can now claim to write truly mature SF in a vein similar to the latest works by Bruce Sterling and Kim Stanley Robinson. (There’s also an extended “ultimate hack” sequence that is reminiscent of a similar awe-inspiring segment in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, though in molecular biology rather than computer science.)

The Secret of Life is not only one of the major SF novels of 2001, but it’s also a breakthrough for McAuley, who finally manages to combine his scientific expertise and writing talents with an accessible elegance that will win him many more readers. I should know; I’ll be one of them.